11/11/13 – The Mexican Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia Nacional, SCJN) made a landmark ruling on November 6 when it addressed the admissibility of forced confessions and improperly obtained evidence in courtroom proceedings. The Court ruled that confessions and evidence obtained through torture and the violation of fundamental human rights could not be presented in a case, upholding Mexico’s Federal Law for the Prevention and Punishment of Torture (1991) and a later constitutional reform (2008) that reaffirmed the 1991 law. While the case marks a significant step forward for Mexico in protecting human rights, it also highlights the weaknesses in Mexico’s flawed judicial system.
The case presented before the Supreme Court was that of Israel Arzate Meléndez, charged with homicide and vehicle theft. He was accused of being involved in the 2010 Villas de Salvárcar massacre in Ciudad Juárez, which left 15 students dead after gunmen entered a party and opened fire on the attendees after mistaking them as members of a rival gang. According to Arzate, who has always denied his involvement, he was picked up by members of the military on February 3, 2010, four days after the massacre. He was taken to a military base in Ciudad Juárez where he was allegedly held incommunicado and tortured—including the use of asphyxiation and electrical shocks—until he confessed his involvement in the massacre. Arzate said that he was forced to sign a confession that he was not allowed to read, and then had to memorize facts and details about the massacre to record a video confession. After his confession was released, Arzate was transferred to Chihuahua state prison Cereso, but was allegedly taken back to the military barracks at least once where he was again tortured.
Arzate’s first hearing was held on February 10, 2010, where he faced charges of vehicle robbery. Contradictory to what Arzate claimed, authorities alleged that the night of February 4, 2010, they saw Arzate driving a stolen Jeep Cherokee, arrested him, and turned him over to the Public Prosecutors (Ministerio Público, MP). It is interesting to note the one day difference in Arzate’s and the government’s stories, which was when Arzate claimed to have been improperly held at the military base and tortured. According to the military, it was while Arzate was in custody for driving a stolen vehicle that he confessed to his involvement in the Villas de Salvárcar massacre. Nevertheless, the stolen vehicle charges were dropped because of a lack of evidence.
The charges of homicide, however, were upheld. During Arzate’s arraignment on February 11, 2010, he told the judge that he played no part in the massacre, that he was tortured into confession, and that his defense attorney witnessed his mistreatment by the authorities. Presiding Judge Anabel Chumacero Corral found, however, that he could not have produced such a detailed and accurate description of the massacre if he was not present, and that his evidence of having been tortured was lacking. As El Universal noted, the judge failed to order another investigation into the validity of Arzate’s claims, which the Istanbul Protocol (to which Mexico is a signatory) requires when the first medical examination or investigation into allegations of torture come back negative. Judge Chumacero then granted the Public Prosecutors six months to build the case against Arzate while he was held in preventative prison, which was then extended another six months until February 2011. At that point, Judge Carmen Leticia Prieto Ruiz granted an order for arraigo because Arzate “had become an increased risk to society,” which transferred him to a police detention facility while the investigation into his alleged involvement continued. An amparo (similar to an appeal) request by the Center for Human Rights in Ciudad Juárez (Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez) was then denied by the Ninth Circuit District in Chihuahua on the same grounds Judge Chumacero had found to continue the case. Arzate was placed on house arrest on September 26, 2012, after his holding in the police facility was found to be illegal by a court. The Supreme Court then took up the case in October 2012 following an investigation by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) that found validity in Arzate’s claims of torture and human rights violations at the hands of the authorities.
The SCJN ruling that confessions and evidence wrongfully obtained cannot be admitted is significant. Not only did the decision immediately free Arzate from the charges, it also upholds Mexico’s constitution to deny such evidence from being permitted in the future. Mexico is notorious for its human rights violations committed by members of the military and police forces, which both Human Rights Watch (2011) and the Justice in Mexico Project (2012) have reported on. In Arzate’s case alone, CNDH found evidence of human rights violations by the Army (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA), State Public Prosecutors (MP), Ministerial Police (Policía Ministerial, PM), and the head of the Ciudad Juárez prison, including violations of Arzate’s right to integrity, personal security, and legal and judicial security, and acts of illegal detention, being held incommunicado, torture, and arbitrary use of force.
The Supreme Court’s decision has been applauded by Mexican and international human rights groups who have long criticized the Mexican government’s failure to protect human rights and bring violators to justice. Said Javier Hernández Valencia, spokesman for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “this ruling constitutes an outright rejection of this type of abhorrent practice, and it is a clear order for authorities to strictly follow and respect human rights.” Echoed José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, “The Supreme Court’s ruling is a long over-due acknowledgement by the government that Israel Arzate’s confession was obtained in violation of his rights and should never have been allowed as evidence.” Nevertheless, he continued, more needs to be done: “Beyond freeing Israel, the court should use the ruling to affirm a clear and unequivocal prohibition on the use of torture-tainted evidence in Mexico’s justice system.”